Is it time to start getting worried about Leinster? They’re three from five in the Pro12, which doesn’t sound all that bad, but the performance levels have been poor. Friday night saw them lose five tries in Galway, and truth be told, they made a Connacht team which hasn’t started the season especially well look like world beaters (as only Leinster can). It’s their second shellacking on the road after an opening day hammering in Llanelli. In their other away match, with a strong line-up against Treviso, they were decidedly lucky to get out of jail with a late, long range drop goal by Johnny Sexton.
It’s eerily reminiscent of Schmidt’s first season in charge. Leinster have been leaky in defence, losing 18 tries in five matches. That’s the worst in the league, three more than Zebre. In attack they’ve played in fits and starts, and have been prone to throwing the ball forward with great regularity and they’ve been powder-puff in contact.
Leinster fans won’t be panicking just yet, because they remember what happened two years ago, when the team seemed to click into gear once the season proper got under way. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll happen the same way again. In Schmidt’s first season, many were happy to put the upswing in fortunes to a sudden getting-the-hang of what Schmidt wanted them to do. This was true, but the real reason was that they got their best players back. Leinster’s season was transformed the moment Sexton and Reddan entered the pitch as substitutes against Munster, instantly picking up the tempo and securing a match-winning try for Brian O’Driscoll.
The concern this year is the lengthy injury list. Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, David Kearney, Eoin O’Malley, Dom Ryan and Luke Fitzgerald are all long term casualties and Gordon D’arcy and Rob Kearney left the field of play on Friday, while Richardt Strauss continues to recover from his head injury picked up against Treviso. Both Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan are also missing.
Leinster’s back three looks particularly stretched, and if any of Kearney, D’arcy and Reddan were to be ruled out this weekend, it could leave Leinster badly exposed in a couple of positions. Fionn Carr up against Doug Howlett and George North? No thanks. Rob Kearney would be an especially grievous loss, as he is the only big back Leinster have and the back-line would be pint-sized without him. And the rumour mill on Leinsterfans has shifted into gear, and it’s not good news…
Meanwhile, in the red corner, some of the feel-good feeling associated with Rob Penney’s positive start was knocked out of them this weekend. Once again, Ospreys laid bare full scale of the job in hand. They bullied Munster out of the game (as an aside, how good is this Jason Tipuric fellow?). While Munster’s work with the ball is much improved, the game underlined our one overriding concern about them – a lack of heft in the pack. The sight of their maul being shunted backwards at a rate of knots will have been chastening for fans of a team which has long prided itself as being expert proponents of this attacking weapon. The scrum was no better and served as an important reminder that anytime you hear a tighthead prop described as being ‘good in the loose’ you should be very suspicious of him (cf. Tony Buckley). While Archer can truck the ball up for good yardage, it’s all for nought if he cannot stabilise the scrum.
Removing Archer from their team is therefore necessary, but that only compounds another problem – a lack of ball carriers. With James Coughlan out injured, who is going to make the hard yards?
It was their second beating of the season, and as well as they played for much of the game against Ulster in their other defeat, there was an uncomfortable reality about elements of proceedings: after the first 20 minutes, Munster barely touched the ball (when they did, it was admittedly very incisive). As Gerry is prone to saying, they were living off scraps.
The trip to a bruising (if hardly inspiring) Racing Metro team looks a lot more difficult after saturday, although Racing have problems of their own. Donnacha Ryan and POM made their comebacks from the bench this weekend, and are fine and important players, but neither have shown themselves capable of bending a match to their will. It all serves to underline the vast importance of Paul O’Connell. It’s been obvious for eons to anyone with half a brain that O’Connell is the key man in red, and without him, it’s genuinely difficult to see how they can beat the best teams.
There, we said it – Paul O’Connell and Rob Kearney are really, really imoprtant, and will be badly missed if not fit. It might be obvious, we felt the need to say it anyway.